There’s a lively, happy holiday song that office supplies company Staples hilariously appropriates for its back-to-school sale TV commercial every year. Parents gleefully shop for school supplies as their kids look glumly on; meanwhile, Andy Williams cheerfully sings to us that “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”
That’s how we feel about Members Night at the Field Museum.
For starters, the Field is one of our favorite museums, chock full of fascinating things that teach us about both the natural world and the many and varied cultures humankind has created over the millennia. Anytime you get mummies and dinosaurs—including Sue, the largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton in the world—in the same place, you’re off to an interesting start. But there are also cases of butterflies, a Pawnee Earth Lodge, Aztec and Incan treasures, fossil plants… and room after room after room of amazing natural life played out in taxidermy dioramas. Like the imposing grouping of water buffaloes above. Equal parts awe-inspiring and slightly surreal, these displays give most of us the most intimate view we will ever have of the creatures that share the planet with us. The museum not only wows you with its amazing collection, it goes to great lengths to tell you why it all matters.
Just as important as the exhibits—arguably even more so—is the work the staff does in the field. At any given moment, the museum has teams of scientists and anthropologists all over the planet, not only collecting and cataloging, but furthering science with their research both on expeditions and back at the museum. And on any given Members Night, you get to talk to some of these people.
We begin every Members Night visit the same way. We head for the Great Hall, get wristbanded for alcohol consumption, buy our drink tickets and grab a glass of wine. As cool as just being at the museum is for us, being there after hours with a drink in hand ramps it all up considerably. We have to be careful, though. At a similar event at the Shedd Aquarium once, instead of marveling at the beauty and diversity of the sea creatures on display, Marion just found herself wondering how each might taste.
Wine in hand, we immediately head behind the scenes. Members Night is like an all access pass to a rock show, only for science geeks. All those places usually marked No Admittance? You’re admitted. You get to wander the halls, peer into offices, see what scientists put up on their walls and doors—there were fewer Far Side cartoons this year than in previous visits. You get to see where work gets done, exhibits get planned, where at least some of the museum’s vast collection of study specimens is stored. While the museum’s exhibition space is vast, high-ceilinged and continuously being updated, behind the scenes is a fascinating rabbit’s warren of utilitarian, dark corridors with pipes and wiring snaking overhead. Dark wood doors with frosted glass windows open onto cluttered offices and brightly lit laboratories.
Coolest of all, though, is you get to meet the people who work in this fascinating environment. And rather than being irritated about having to work extra hours on these two nights every year, they are genuinely delighted to be surrounded by people interested in what they do. Asking someone a question is like flipping an on switch. Fascinating information just starts pouring out.
On our most recent Members Night visit last week:
Marion and her sister Lena learned that ancient textiles are often repaired with one of three grades of Japanese paper made from mulberry bark, extremely strong, but so light and thin it “feels almost like nothing,” as Marion said.
I learned that, unlike humans, all birds have circular disklike bones in the backs of their eyes, and that, like humans, they have kneecaps. I learned this from a scientist seated next to the case of live dermisted flesh-eating beetles that clean study skeletons for the museum. She was carefully tweezing little bits of gristle and flesh they’d missed on tiny bird skeletons as we talked; Members Night is not for the squeamish.
We spoke with a zoologist whose current project is photographing minute flies that live on bats. The flies are so specialized that each species of fly lives not only on one particular species of bat, but only on one specific part of that bat. Around the neck, for instance, or under the wing [which Marion kept calling the armpit, and the zoologist kept gently correcting her]. As a bit of trivia, this is interesting enough. But it is anything but trivial; it is yet one more bit of evidence that every environmental choice we make affects many, many more fellow inhabitants of this planet than we can begin to imagine.
One might think this event would be about as well attended as a Friends of Sylvia Plath poetry reading. Well, one would be wrong. It is packed both nights every year. And not just by the pocket protector crowd—it is about as diverse an audience as you’ll find anywhere, by any measure you choose. Of course, if you’re still reading this, chances are I’ve stirred your inner geek too. Maybe we’ll see you there next year. Marion’s already trying to work out a way for us to get in both nights next time.